poems by Johnpaul Simiyu

Requiem For A King


When I first stumbled upon Martin Luther King Jr.,

I was black.

My mother was not in the kitchen.

She was out in the garden hanging our sheets,

white sheets that made the poles that looked like eyes, and arms.

“I have an answer to a burning question, ma.”

Her eyes flew open when I said burning

and she unpegged the sheets and arranged them on the ground.

“There, much better,” she whispered.

“I believe I’m black,” I told her as we headed into the house.

She stopped near the wooden steps, plucked a flower of different shades

and forced it into my coarse hair.

“There, there, my black prince. Now you are beautiful.”

I only stayed black until I met Malcolm.

He was in the streets of our town, in a black suit and anger.

His words of freedom were like a knife’s edge

and I believed him.

I hadn’t been allowed into the pool the previous weekend

and my mum had never told me why we had to stand in the bus,

save for ‘lucky we are not going too far, right?’

And we’d stand for forty-five minutes.

In one of Malcolm’s speeches in the neighbourhood,

he questioned the blackness of the people who listened to King

and indeed I wondered how far black I went.

I returned to my mother that evening, a small quran in hand.

She stared at it with blankness for a moment,

then traced her finger over the gilded writings and murmured something.

‘Mama, can you read it for me?’

(I might as well have asked her ‘mama, can you die right now?’)

‘Of course, baby, but after you’ve eaten and rested’.

It took me years to learn that she couldn’t read,

and the songs she sang to me made little to no sense.

Still the songs came to die in my ears,

the vanity, the sounds of her blabbering lost in the deception

of a dark night as I sobbed myself to sleep,

the assassin out in the street,

Malcolm in a pool of blood and faith, my mother’s vanity

promising that I was not alone.

Three years later, when I went to sleep, Kingless.

She swathed me in a song, and King remained with the blood.

Lucky him, he was a king.

Lucky my mother, she’d already dead.

And where do the rest of us fall?




Letter to My Son


Emptiness is misunderstood in sculptures and writings

It is not a state of the mind, or the heart.

It is when a broken man learns that snakes are growing

where there used to be a road

and there is no way back to where he once was,

back to the misery he was comfortable with.

Misery is knowing that he is a grown man now,

and no one gives a hoot that his father

left, or whether he was right to do it,

or that all that is left of his life is bone.

As a curious boy, you asked me why I always write

about blood?

What else is there, son?

My blood got warm, and I looked for your mother.

When she became hot-blooded,

I had to leave, or we would die.

A part of me died either way, for when the door opened on her one last time,

a shadow trooped in,


That’s what they called it.


That’s what I called it.

My moon yowled and turned into blood,

the dogs in me became wolves, and the man inside grew canines.

Forgive me for the bites and the barks.

I was hurting, and now you are bleeding.

Again, blood.

When there is fear in the night, and the answer is blood,

on paper, in the inkpot, in the words, in the eyes

in the depths, ends and beginnings.

Some stories are long ropes to hang from for those lucky enough.

Mine is over, now I hand you the knife.

Because what else is there to hand you, foolish boy?

Your books? Your words? Love? Life?

Have you ever wondered why your life is an empty page?

When you were born, your mother was bathed

in blood, and vomit, and shit, but much of it was blood

“Never again,” she vowed.

And that is why she never loved you.

She saw the blood she shed every time she saw you,

like Christ every time he sees the father.

I know your emptiness, boy.

You will not make me forget how your tongue

explored closed mouths as you tried to convince him

that love was love, and his eyes shone with desire,

and evening fear.

I think I should forgive you for loving him.

Maybe by forgiving you, I will forgive myself

and the man right now kneeling in front of me.

He wants to pray but his mouth is full

and the spirit has no place to enter anymore, but I do.

I wished I had loved you more, but whatever I love


Some explode into fire and ash, some memories,

some orgasms, some children.

I am waiting to see what you will burn into.




I am Not Happy


Where did I forget my hands last night?

They are for sure not with her, she was home.

I was not.

In whose skirts did my lips wander?

Where did I come? Because I didn’t come home.

I know I am not cheating.

I know I am not happy.

I know there is no lipstick on my shirt,

There is no taste of moss in my mouth.

I worked late. The perfume is from clients.

I know I have not been home much.

I am not happy.

My house is a coffin.

My wife is a well.

She cannot dance anymore, arthritis.

She cannot sing anymore, sore throat.

She cannot joke anymore, maturity.

I am not happy with her.

But I am happy with Winnie from HR.

There is a fire that I forgot to collect

when I left my youth behind.

Winnie opened that wooden door, walked down the hallway

found it and returned it to me.

Now I am young again, but youth, even when old, fleets.

Night cannot be ignored for too long, and when it is, it becomes tomorrow

and haunts over again.

Grace, she waits at the door in the wee hours.

Her flesh sags. Her eyes are red.

It must be the allergies. She doesn’t do well with eggs.

I look at her, she looks through me.

She is not happy.

I am supposed to look down when she spears me

but a kiss on the cheek closes the door on silence

and the only thing that comes out when she opens her mouth

is disbelief and other gasps, like the musician who believed

that his own song would never stab him like it did,

like nostalgia that never happened.

She does not believe me.

She does not trust me.

But isn’t marriage a song anyway?

It starts ending as soon as it starts.






You won the war

But you took home tales of war told in tongues so sharp that

they can cut men to pieces

The gun is in some shelf thousands of miles away

But the memories are engraved in your head.

Do you remember the woman with the fair skin?

Yes, you do.

She tortures you every time the rain falls.

The music it composes on the roof is a memory of the song that night

when you exploded into flood and seed inside her.

Pray, do you remember the beautiful man?

The one you stabbed with your tongue

and then he drowned, only for you to remember that he was your son?

Do you recall the day your fingers

slipped under the schoolgirl’s dress by accident

and you wrote in her a memory that slit her wrists?

The war was yesterday, and you forgot it there.

but the dregs walked with you to your house

and now follow to the toilet where the loudness

of your bowels sends you scampering for cover.

Darkness finds you in the rocking chair, waiting for the black sun

to save you from the rivers drowning your toes inside those fetid boots.

Something is always dead where you are now.

Everyday a soldier falls into smoke and a widow picks up the pieces

The hyena bays among the twigs,

his grandchildren have started to smell

like goats

The vultures have refused to leave the trees in the yard.

They no longer fear the admonitions from the echoes in your throat.

Your words cannot stop the rain, or the smoke swirling in the rubble

that you confuse for a mind.

All you can do now is stand next to the window,

but you painted it shut when your daughter drew a heart on it.

You told her that you do not want to remember some things

and she packed her bags and left you in the pool, drowning.

You wish to go back to the past and be a child again

but you lit those rooms on fire

and now you don’t remember where the house draped in loneliness

stands anymore, if it does, it’s in your head.

You were young so many times, and maybe then,

you could have afforded to drown in every mirror you saw, but now,

it is always night, and the moon is always out,

The werewolf in you desires to get out, but there is no strength,

only but for the bones to creak in a song half-remembered.

Someday you will want to die, but it will not come easy,

not like the dreams of the olden days when you would go up in the sky

They are all up in smoke now, and the only thing you can crunch

is bones in the names of stairs,

You can pretend that the stubborn waves are behind you now

but the human mind is a thicket, and many who go there

can no longer remember the way out.

They forget that the only way out of the past is through the future

But how can the future be seen through broken eyes?

Man should only die once, but who’s counting?

Where, after all, do you hide

when you are running from yourself?




Remembering Fragments Lost in Time


What is there to remember

save for the day you said it out loud, in your heart,

that they should let him love whosoever his heart desired?

What about the Sunday when the priest spelled the bible verse

that there was time for everything?

‘Why not time for everyone?’

You raised your hand to ask and he said it even louder,

assuming that the Holy Spirit had driven the point home.


What is there to remember save for the days we spent

staring at the rain from the comfort of the window,

you outside, me inside,

bound by the ropes of a past in fragments,

a past we wished was different?

If we recollect the shards, we will remember

that we were busy counting the arrows that missed,

forgetting that one hit and the womb that birthed our love

took to water.

Yes, we were wishing we had said something before the whispers on the rooftop

became a storm,

but what does it matter when words are raindrops

that lose their meaning in dirty streams

and in ears that cannot wait for the end of the sentence

to pounce in with one of their own?

What is there to remember,

except that in the silence born of wrath,

we saw love turn to war

and people around us withered and died?

Look, the girls we once loved are now women,

or lifeless, because we did not tell them what they needed to hear.

But there is no time to remember that, is there?

There is no time to remember anything

unless you really hate it and it consumes you.

Do you remember the horse you told me about?

Yes, the one that wouldn’t gallop off of the picture hanging on the wall

on the day you made up with your stepfather,

while your mother lay half-naked upstairs?

Do you remember how much you hated that picture?

Now that I can see, I think you hated the moment more than the picture.

Somehow, I do not want to remember his beard all over your face,

his moist fingers writing memories in the glory of your home,

your mouth half-open with a ‘no’ that wouldn’t spill out…

But from my lonely chair planted next to the window where words crystalize

on the sun-kissed mirror hazy with fog from our lungs,

I can see in hindsight

what you meant when you said that there will come a time

when night will stretch for days,

and the eyes of the sun will refuse to close

when I desire sleep the most.

I now understand that I should have listened

and maybe the wars we waged in the fleeting pages

that now belong to the ashes where your mother dumps the char,

right where I dumped you and collected you again, like a bad poem,

wouldn’t have happened.

But that memory is in fragments lost in time.

What I remember well is the day you tried put your hurt into a painting

but there wasn’t enough pain to convince your heart that the sky is black enough.

If time was a place, I would go back and hold my tongue

and listen to the falling chinks as you fall apart, in silence.

poems by Johnpaul Simiyu

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